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Prefaces from Amy Lowell's Collections

Preface from Lowell's Men, Women, and Ghosts
(New York: Macmillan Company, 1917) vii-xii.

This is a book of stories. For that reason I have excluded all purely lyrical poems. But the word "stories" has been stretched to its fullest application. It includes both narrative poems, properly so called tales divided into scenes; and a few pieces of less obvious story telling import in which one might say that the dramatis personae are air, clouds, trees, houses, streets, and such like things.

It has long been a favourite idea of mine that the rhythms of vers libre have not been sufficiently plumbed, that there is in them a power of variation which has never yet been brought to the light of experiment. I think it was the piano pieces of Debussy, with their strange likeness to short vers libre poems, which first showed me the close kinship of music and poetry, and there flashed into my mind the idea of using the movement of poetry in somewhat the same way that the musician uses the movement of music.

It was quite evident that this could never done in the strict pattern of a metrical form, but the flowing, fluctuating rhythm of vers libre seemed to open the door to such an experiment. First, however, I considered the same method as applied to the more pronounced movements of natural objects. If the reader will turn to the poem, "A Roxbury Garden," he will find in the first two sections an attempt to give the circular movement of a hoop bowling along the ground, and the up and down, elliptical curve of a flying shuttlecock.

From these experiments, it is but a step to the flowing rhythm of music. In "The Cremona, Violin," I have tried to give this flowing, changing rhythm to the parts in which the violin is being played, The effect is farther heightened, because the rest of the poem is written in the seven line Chaucerian stanza; and, by deserting this ordered pattern for the undulating line of vers libre, I hoped to produce something of the suave, continuous tone of a violin. Again, in the violin parts themselves, the movement constantly changes, as will be quite plain to any one reading these passages aloud.

In "The Cremona Violin," however, the rhythms are fairly obvious and regular. I set myself a far harder task in trying to transcribe the various movements of Stravinsky's "Three Pieces 'Grotesques,' for String Quartet." Several musicians, who have seen the poem, think the movement accurately given.

These experiments lead me to believe that there is here much food for thought and matter for study, and I hope many poets will follow me in opening up the still hardly explored possibilities of vers libre.

A good many of the poems in this book, are written in "polyphonic prose." A form about which I have written and spoken so much that it seems hardly necessary to explain it here. Let me hastily add, however, that the word "prose" in its name refers only to the typo- graphical arrangement, for in no sense is this prose form. Only read it aloud, Gentle Reader, I beg, and you will see what you will see. For a purely dramatic, form, I know none better in the whole range of poetry. It enables the Poe to give his characters the vivid, real effect the, have in a play, while at the same time writing in the decor.

One last innovation I have still to mention. It will be found in "Spring Day," and more fully enlarged upon in the series, "Towns in Colour." In these poems, I have endeavoured to give the colour, and light, and shade, of certain places and hours, stressing the purely pictorial effect, and with little or no reference to any other aspect of the places described. It is an enchanting thing to wander through a city looking for its unrelated beauty, the beauty by which it captivates the sensuous sense of seeing.

I have always loved aquariums, but for years went to them and looked, and looked, at those swirling, shooting, looping patterns of fish, which always defied transcription to paper until I hit upon the "unrelated" method. The result is in "An Aquarium." I think the first thing which turned me in this direction was John Gould Fletcher's " London Excursion," in " Some Imagist Poets." I here record my thanks.

For the substance of the poems—why, the poems are here. No one writing to-day can fail to be affected by the great war raging in Europe at this time. We are too near it to do more than touch upon it. But, obliquely, it is suggested in many of these poems, most notably those in the section, "Bronze Tablets." The Napoleonic Era is an epic subject, and waits a great epic poet. I have only been able to open a few windows upon it here and there. But the scene from the windows is authentic, and the watcher has used eyes, and ears, and heart, in watching.

Preface from Lowell's Can Grande’s Castle
(New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918) vii-xvii.

THE four poems in this book are more closely related to one another than may at first appear. They all owe their existence to the war, for I suppose that, had there been no war, I should never have thought of them. They are scarcely war poems, in the strict sense of the word, nor are they allegories in which the present is made to masquerade as the past. Rather, they are the result of a vision thrown suddenly back upon remote events to explain a strange and terrible reality. "Explain" is hardly the word, for to explain the subtle causes which force men, once in so often, to attempt to break the civilization they have been at pains to rear, and so oblige other, saner, men to oppose them, is scarcely the province of poetry. Poetry works more deviously, but perhaps not less conclusively.

It has frequently been asserted that an artist lives apart, that he must withdraw himself from events and be somehow above and beyond them. To a certain degree this is true, as withdrawal is usually an inherent quality of his nature, but to seek such a withdrawal is both ridiculous and frustrating. For an artist to shut himself up in the proverbial "ivory tower" and never look out of the window is merely a tacit admission that it is his ancestors, not he, who possess the faculty of creation. This is the real decadence: to see through the eyes of dead men. Yet to-day can never be adequately expressed, largely because we are a part of it and only a part. For that reason one is flung backwards to a time which is not thrown out of proportion by any personal experience, and which on that very account lies extended in something like its proper perspective.

Circumstances beget an interest in like circumstances, and a poet, suddenly finding himself in the midst of war, turns naturally to the experiences of other men in other wars. He discovers something which has always hitherto struck him as preposterous, that life goes on in spite of war. That war itself is an expression of life, a barbaric expression on one side calling for an heroic expression on the other. It is as if a door in his brain crashed open and he looked into a distance of which he had heard but never before seen. History has become life, and he stands aghast and exhilarated before it.

That is why I have chosen Mr. Aldington's poem as a motto to this book. For it is obvious that I cannot have experienced what I have here written. I must have got it from books. But, living now, in the midst of events greater than these, the books have become reality to me in a way that they never could have become before, and the stories I have dug out of dusty volumes seem as actual as my own existence. I hope that a little of this vividness may have got into the poems themselves, and so may reach my readers. Perhaps it has been an impossible task, I can only say that I was compelled to attempt it.

The poems are written in "polyphonic prose," a form which has proved a stumbling-block to many people. "Polyphonic prose" is perhaps a misleading title, as it tends to make the layman think that this is a prose form. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The word "prose" in its title simply refers to the manner in which the words are printed; "polyphonic"—many-voiced—giving the real key. "Polyphonic prose" is the freest, the most elastic, of all forms, for it follows at will any, and all, of the rules which guide other forms. Metrical verse has one set of laws, cadenced verse another; "polyphonic prose" can go from one to the other in the same poem with no sense of incongruity. Its only touchstone is the taste and feeling of its author.

Yet, like all other artistic forms, it has certain fundamental principles, and the chief of these is an insistence on the absolute adequacy of the manner of a passage to the thought it embodies. Taste is therefore its determining factor; taste and a rhythmic ear.

In the preface to "Sword Blades and Poppy Seed," I stated that I had found the idea of the form in the works of the French poet, M. Paul Fort. But in adapting it for use in English I was obliged to make so many changes that it may now be considered as practically a new form. The greatest of these changes was in the matter of rhythm. M. Fort's practice consists, almost entirely, of regular verse passages interspersed with regular prose passages. But a hint in one of his poems led me to believe that a closer blending of the two types was desirable, and here at the very outset I met with a difficulty. Every form of art must have a base; to depart satisfactorily from a rhythm it is first necessary to have it. M. Fort found this basic rhythm in the alexandrine. But the rhythm of the alexandrine is not one of the basic rhythms to an English ear. Altered from syllables to accent, it becomes light, even frivolous, in texture. There appeared to be only one basic rhythm for English serious verse: iambic pentameter, which, either rhymed as in the "heroic couplet" or unrhymed as in "blank verse," seems the chief foundation of English metre. It is so heavy and so marked, however, that it is a difficult rhythm to depart from and go back to; therefore I at once discarded it for my purpose.

Putting aside one rhythm of English prosody after another, I finally decided to base my form upon the long, flowing cadence of oratorical prose. The variations permitted to this cadence enable the poet to change the more readily into those of vers libre, or even to take the regular beat of metre, should such a marked time seem advisable. It is, of course, important that such changes should appear as not only adequate but necessary when the poem is read aloud. And so I have found it. However puzzled a reader may be in trying to apprehend with the eye a prose which is certainly not prose, I have never noticed that an audience experiences the slightest confusion in hearing a "polyphonic prose" poem read aloud. I admit that the typographical arrangement of this form is far from perfect, but I have not as yet been able to hit upon a better. As all printing is a mere matter of convention, however, I hope that people will soon learn to read it with no more difficulty than a musician knows in reading a musical score.

So much for the vexed question of rhythm. Others of the many voices of "polyphonic prose " are rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and return. Rhyme is employed to give a richness of effect, to heighten the musical feeling of a passage, but it is employed in a different way from that usual in metrical verse. For, although the poet may, indeed must, employ rhyme, it is not done always, nor, for the most part, regularly. In other words, the rhymes should seldom come at the ends of the cadences, unless such an effect be especially desired. This use of rhyme has been another difficulty to readers. Seeing rhymes, their minds have been compelled by their seeming strangeness to pull them, Jack-Horner-like, out of the text and unduly notice them, to the detriment of the passage in which they are embedded. Hearing them read without stress, they pass unobserved, merely adding their quota of tonal colour to the whole.

Return in "polyphonic prose" is usually achieved by the recurrence of a dominant thought or image, coming in irregularly and in varying words, but still giving the spherical effect which I have frequently spoken of as imperative in all poetry.

It will be seen, therefore, that "polyphonic prose" is, in a sense, an orchestral form. Its tone is not merely single and melodic as is that of vers libre, for instance, but contrapuntal and various. I have analyzed it here with some care because, as all the poems in this volume are written in it, some knowledge of how to approach it is necessary if one is to understand them. I trust, however, that my readers will speedily forget matters of technique on turning to the poems themselves.

One thing more I wish to say in regard to "Guns as Keys: and the Great Gate Swings." I should be exceedingly sorry if any part of this poem were misunderstood, and so construed into an expression of discourtesy toward Japan. No such idea entered my mind in writing it; in fact, the Japanese sections in the first part 'were intended to convey -quite the opposite meaning. I wanted to place in juxtaposition the delicacy and artistic clarity of Japan and the artistic ignorance and gallant self-confidence of America. Of course, each country must be supposed to have the faults of its virtues; if, therefore, I have also opposed Oriental craft to Occidental bluff, I must beg indulgence.

I have tried to give a picture of two races at a moment when they were brought in contact for the first time. Which of them has gained most by this meeting, it would be difficult to say. The two episodes in the "Postlude" are facts, but they can hardly epitomize the whole truth. Still they are striking, occurring as they did in the same year. I owe the scene of the drowning of the young student in the Kegon waterfall to the paper "Young Japan," by Seichi Naruse, which appeared in the "Seven Arts" for April, 1917. The inscription on the tree I have copied word for word from Mr. Naruse's translation, and I wish here to express my thanks, not for his permission (as with a perfect disregard of morals, I never asked it), but for his beautiful rendering of the original Japanese. I trust that my appreciation will exonerate my theft.

From the Preface to Lowell's John Keats
(New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925)

My intention in writing this book has been by no means to supplant existing biographies, but to add to them, and this I hope will be clearly understood. I should not have attempted a complete biography had it been possible to present all that I have discovered in any other way, but the knowledge gained, spread as it is over the whole of Keats’s life, could be properly understood only by placing it in a chronological pattern.

This is my chief reason for writing the book; there was, however, another. It lay simply in the passage of time. Many as are the books on Keats, their authors have belonged, I think without exception, to the nineteenth century, in attitude if not in fact. But a new generation of poets and critics now holds the stage, and the twentieth century has been silent in regard to Keats. Yet a great poet has something to give to every generation, and it has seemed to me time that mine should set down its impressions and put its particular view on record. I do not pretend to speak as the universal voice of an era, merely as one voice existing in that era; but this opinion has led me to add a certain amount of criticism to the biography proper, which criticism will be considered sympathetic or the reverse principally, I believe, according to whether the individual reader derive his impressions from the mental impulses of the last century or of this.

Keats and his poetry are so much of a piece, that I have followed a rather unusual method in dealing with the two aspects of his character, the personal and the poetic. I have given his life as a whole, bringing in the poems at intervals as they occurred to him. My object has been to make the reader feel as though he were living with Keats, subject to the same influences that surrounded him, moving in his circle, watching the advent of poems as from day to day they sprang into being. I have tired to bring back into existence the place, the time, and the society in which Keats moved. A host of commentators have dealt with him solely in his quality as a poet functioning in the timeless area of universal literature; my endeavour has been to show him as a particular poet, hindered and assisted by his temperamental bias as a man, writing in a certain milieu. For this reason, I have considered that no detail which could add vividness to the picture is unimportant, nothing which could clarify his psychological processes too slight to be mentioned. Keats’s life was so short that it is possible to follow it with a minuteness which could not be accorded to a poet who had lived the usual span of man’s existence. (pp. vii-ix)

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